Part art, part science: Dairy processors take the same raw product — fresh milk — and transform it into dozens of different products ranging from ice cream and yogurt to sour cream and cottage cheese. All of them need to be processed, stored and transported safely to ensure consistent quality and flavor.

The short lifespan of milk and other dairy products when exposed to even mild temperature elevation makes a reliable cold-storage solution essential. Lots of considerations go into choosing the right refrigeration or freezing solution, but here are the top five factors to consider:

1. Temperature stability.

A constant, even temperature is the enemy of ice crystals, so maintaining a stable temperature is key to ensuring product integrity, whether in storage or transit. Older freezer and refrigerator units don’t have circulated or forced air to keep an even temperature across all the product stored within. This can have an effect on the quality and shelf life of the product, depending on how long it is stored. If your business requires lengthy storage times for frozen products, ensure freezers have forced air functionality.

2. Food safety.  

Food waste is a huge issue these days, with an estimated 40% of all food produced thrown out. Considering the cost of malfunctioning equipment in lost sales, repairs, labor and downtime — not to mention the reputational damage that spoiled product can cause — an investment in high-quality freezers and refrigerators equipped with digital thermostats is critical.

The ability to monitor temperatures can be difficult, so in addition to digital thermostats, having an integrated smart health monitor that can detect when a high temperature threshold has been reached could be essential to operating safely and maintaining product integrity.

3. Easy cleaning and maintenance.

Defrosting multiple refrigeration units is time-consuming and costly. Look for auto-defrost functionality to avoid lengthy downtimes and additional labor costs.

Many, if not most refrigerators and freezers have condensers that need to be cleaned on a regular basis. Instead, look for units with low-maintenance condensers, which require only annual visual inspections to ensure they are clear of any dirt or dust. They can save time and labor and contribute to lower costs.

4. Energy consumption.

If you are operating older freezer or refrigerator units, the incentive to replace them is all the greater when you consider the tremendous energy cost savings. Environmental standards enacted in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Energy reduced energy consumption by 50%, and the banning of greenhouse gas-emitting refrigerants such R404A and CFCs has brought the refrigeration industry into a new and greener era.

R290, the new, approved refrigerant, emits far less greenhouse gases, with a lower global warming potential, allowing for more efficient operation. Today’s R290-powered units use less than half the energy of the previous generation. In addition, some jurisdictions offer energy-efficiency incentives, so replacing a freezer or refrigerator might qualify for a grant or subsidy from a local energy provider.  

5. Ability to work in a hot environment.

No matter how hot the ambient temperature might get, the freezers should perform. Not all commercial freezers are created equal, and when operating in higher temperatures, refrigeration units won’t work as efficiently, and some won’t work at all.

If this is the case in your facility, check the manufacturer’s recommended or approved operating conditions before purchasing. Look for units that can perform at up to 86 degrees Fahrenheit and 55% relative humidity for the best possible result.

Depending on your operation, another consideration might be pull-down times. That refers to how long it takes for a fully loaded refrigeration unit with product at room temperature to come down to operating temperature. If you are a heavy-volume user that restocks with warm product on a regular basis, this consideration will impact operating costs. Alternatively, if your facility operates in a hot climate, with little to no air conditioning where refrigeration units are operating, it will be extremely important to look for efficient models.

The future of ‘Best-Before’ labels

Decreasing the refrigeration temperature of milk by just a few degrees had a dramatic effect on the concentration of spore-forming bacteria, reducing spoilage and extending the lifespan of milk, according to a food safety study from Cornell University. More specifically, the study showed that by decreasing the refrigeration temperature from 42.8 degrees Fahrenheit to 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit, only 9% of milk half-gallons were spoiled after 21 days, compared with 66% of half-gallons held at the higher temperature.

The study’s authors imagine a day when milk cartons are stamped with a barcode that provides the milk’s entire production history and a more accurate use-by date. Eventually they predict milk packaging will include a time-temperature indicator with precise shelf-life prediction. In the meantime, it pays for dairy processors to use refrigerators and freezers that are not only stable, but also able to reach and maintain lower temperatures.